In grad school there were a few of us who played practical jokes on each other. This one undergrad in our research group had it in for your uncle and one day he had an e-mail to his chemistry professor open on the shared computer, so Adam wrote at the end of it “P.S. I love you.” The undergrad caught him in the act and a scuffle ensued, during which the e-mail disappeared from the screen. At this point I was hysterically laughing and shouting, “It sent! It sent!” The guy flew out of there to run down three flights of stairs to explain what had happened before the professor got the wrong idea. We never did find out what happened to that e-mail.
At times you might feel like the e-mails you’re sending to your professors are disappearing. It can be frustrating not to get a response when you expect it or not at all, so here are some tips to make sure you get a response in a timely manner.
Introduce yourself via e-mail. Some professors’ first assignment is to e-mail them. Even if you’re not asked to, it might be a good idea to send your professors or teaching assistants (whoever you’d be contacting if you have a problem or question) a brief e-mail at the beginning of the semester. Ask them to reply “Hi” or request a read receipt so you know your e-mail was received. If your e-mail system allows you to upload a profile picture, be sure to do this and pick an appropriate picture where your face is recognizable and takes up most of the space.
Be polite and professional. Always begin an e-mail with a formal salutation and address your professors using their formal title (Dr., Professor, etc). Say please and thank them for their time. You want to be understood, so use proper grammar and don’t use textese or emoticons.
Avoid technical issues. Sometimes we really didn’t get your e-mail. Be sure to always use your official school e-mail so that: 1) your e-mail gets past the spam filter and 2) your professor knows it’s legit and doesn’t delete it without reading it. You should obviously double-check your professor’s e-mail address or, better yet, reply to an e-mail he or she sent you (but change the subject line unless it’s related). You can also use delivery receipts and/or read receipts (although some people hate these).
Don’t let your email get buried. Professors receive a ton of e-mail and not everyone checks their e-mail in chronological order. If you know your professor won’t see your e-mail over the weekend or until morning, then don’t e-mail them on Sunday or in the middle of the night and especially do not e-mail them while they are sending automatic out of office replies. Wait and send your e-mail at a time when they are likely to be looking at e-mail or write your e-mail, but then use the delay delivery option to send the e-mail at an opportune time (it’s under options in Outlook).
Be succinct and specific. The shorter the e-mail the better. If it requires scrolling, maybe it’s better to call or go to office hours. Don’t send a whole list of questions or requests, you’re more likely to get a response to everything if you keep it to one topic per e-mail. Better than a short e-mail is the e-mail not sent at all, so check the syllabus and other sources of information first to see if you can answer your own question.
Make it as easy as possible and don’t be annoying. Do your professors a huge favor and sign your full name and include the course and section number somewhere, preferably in the subject line along with a summary of your question/request. Nothing is worse than having to look through several class lists to figure out which section a student is enrolled in so you can finally answer the question. Don’t overuse the important button or it will lose its effect. Give them a chance to reply, at least a day, especially if it’s complicated or requires some investigating, before you resend.
Hopefully these tips decrease the response time to your e-mails and you can get your answer and go back to studying. If you’re still having trouble getting a response, perhaps it’s time to switch to a different mode of communication, some of us are better with voicemails or prefer texting even.
Let me know if you use any of these tips!